Hurting The Game

An increase in injuries has diminished the NBA

The injury bug, which always wreaks a little havoc on the NBA, has multiplied into a swarm this lockout-shortened season, and players are dropping like, well, flies. The result is a league where scoring is in short supply and quality play is even harder to come by. Locally, players have been bitten at an incredible clip— especially the Nets, who are anchoring a division many thought they'd be leading. As for the Knicks, the loss of Latrell Sprewell has turned what was expected to be an offensive powerhouse into one of the league's lowest-scoring teams.

Within the first week of this compressed season, 20 NBA players found themselves on the injured list (IL). And as of Sunday, just three weeks into the schedule, 67 had been placed on the IL— out of a total of roughly 360 players in the league. Compare this to the 60 injured players who made the list fourweeks into the 1997­98 season.

But those figures don't tell the full story: there are loads of dinged-up players who don't appear on any official list— those who are chalked up as sidelined or day-to-day. Nets point guard Sam Cassell, for one, isn't on the IL, but he's had a severely sprained ankle since opening night in Atlanta. Since then, he's played only sporadically, and not at all after an ineffective 5-for-14 game against the Knicks last Tuesday.

Sam-I-Ain't: Cassell gets helped off the court after an opening-night injury.
AP/ Wide World/ Courtesy of Fox Sports
Sam-I-Ain't: Cassell gets helped off the court after an opening-night injury.

The extraordinarily high rate of injuries has had its obvious effects on the game. For one, scoring is way down, barely cracking the 90 mark. As of last week, teams were averaging 90.9 points per game, a few baskets down from the 95.2 points per game they averaged three weeks into the 1997­98 season (overall, teams averaged 95.6 points last year).

Injuries can cause such a downward dip in a variety of ways— it's not just the result of good players languishing on the bench in street clothes and leg casts. It's also due to the extra burden put on those who stay in uniform. "It's hurt us," says coach John Calipari when asked how injuries have affected the beleaguered Nets. "It's hard with so many guys out. But what also contributes to it is that we've been playing guys for too many minutes."

Teams are also suffering from a lack of chemistry, playing in unfamiliar combinations because of the high number of hurt regulars. This has also hit the Nets particularly hard. In their first nine games, Calipari used six different starting lineups.

It's all because the Nets resemble a traveling hospital ward. Guard Lucious Harris is on the IL with back problems; center Rony Seikaly is also on the list, with a wrecked right foot; guard Eric Murdock has groin trouble; guard Kerry Kittles was sidelined briefly with a knee injury; and it appears that All-Star center Jayson Williams has suffered from a little bit of everything.

"I'm broke," said a tired Williams after practice last Friday. "I'm hurt. My bones is broke. I might need surgery." The 6-10, 245-pound 31-year-old has a staggering array of battle scars, including damaged thumb ligaments (where he may need the surgery), a sore right foot, a bruised left shoulder, and impaired breathing from a broken nose he acquired opening night.

"It's like taking a car out of the shop that's not ready and racing it in the Indy 500," says Nets assistant coach for strength and development Rich Dalatri of the multitude of injuries the Nets and the rest of the NBA are experiencing. "From the start we knew this was going to be a strange season with the short training period and the long off period. That's why we and everyone else are seeing so many injuries. Coming into camp, guys were just out of shape."

The way Dalatri describes it, after the second day of training camp, Cassell could barely walk. Trainers had to alternate his legs between a sauna and an ice bath to flush out the lactic acid in his muscles. "But he's really dedicated, and he's getting better every day," says Dalatri. "All the players are.

"Part of the problem," Dalatri continues, "for us, at least, is that an offensive team is going to struggle more at this point in the season— everything has to click. A defensive team just has to wait and play off of the other team."

Williams agrees. "With Sam [Cassell] going out, that's like a Brett Favre going out," he says of the guard who posted a career-high 36 points and nine assists in the Nets opener against Atlanta (it was at the end of that game when Cassell hurt his ankle; he missed the next six games). "So you have to get a new rhythm going with a new system. So we had Eric Murdock in there and after a while he adjusted, but then he's got injuries now. It's just hard to keep that rhythm with all the injuries coming."

The Knicks have been suffering from the same offensive hardship since losing the explosive Sprewell two games into the season. They have altered tack accordingly and bolstered their defensive play. As of Sunday, they were third in the league in fewest points allowed, averaging only 83.3 points per game, behind Atlanta and Dallas. But they are no doubt missing Sprewell, who posted 24 points and six rebounds in their first game against Orlando. Through Sunday, the Knicks ranked in the bottom two in points scored per game with just 83.6.

Many other teams are also missing big-time players because of notable injuries: Atlanta guard Steve Smith is on the IL with a strained right knee; Charlotte forward Glen Rice had elbow surgery and will be sidelined until at least mid March, while teammate Anthony Mason will miss the rest of the season due to a hyperextended right elbow; Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will miss the rest of the season due to a broken foot; Denver center Raef LaFrentz tore an anterior cruciate ligament in last Thursday's game against Dallas; Detroit forward Christian Laettner is expected to be sidelined until the end of March with a torn Achilles tendon; Miami forward Jamal Mashburn is on the IL with a left knee contusion and teammate Voshon Lenard will be out for the rest of the season due to a stress fracture in his left leg.

For those who continue to suit up and run the floor in pain, there isn't much anyone can do to speed up their recovery period or adapt their game play.

"I only know how to play one way," says Williams when asked how he has dealt with his injuries. "So I don't compensate. I can't. I'll do as much as my body can do."

"The problem is that there isn't enough room in the schedule for them to rest and repair their bodies," says Dalatri. "Even after a few weeks of playing, the schedule doesn't allow for any real training time, and coaches can't think of the first few weeks of the season as any kind of training period either. So it's a matter of do you want a player that is out of shape, or a player that is out of shape and tired? You can only push them so much. Otherwise, something is going to break along the way."

Dalatri has employed cardiovascular training in the pool and a special diet to keep his players' energy up in a season that has been rough on their bodies. There has been someimprovement. "The strength of the players is definitely getting better, and the games will start getting better as a result," says Dalatri. "But whether any injured player in the NBA will ever get to the level where they normally should be? I don't know."


Injuries Are Up; Points Are Down

First 3 weeks
NETS 1999 '97­98 '97­98
Player games missed 29 57 249
Pts PG 84.6 94.7 99.6
FG % .389 .415 .441
Turnovers 17.3 15.7 14.4

First 3 weeks
KNICKS 1999 '97­98 '97­98
Player games missed 17 3 191
Pts PG 83.6 96.5 91.6
FG % .439 .477 .447
Turnovers 18 16.9 15.2

First 3 weeks
NBA 1999 '97­98 '97­98
Player games missed 67 60 N/A
Pts PG 90.9 95.2 95.6
FG % .427 .446 .450
Turnovers 15.9 16.5 15.5

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